The power of distant social connections

Yesterday, this graph was shared:

This is a particularly interesting graph because it demonstrates the power of “distant” or “weak” connections. The whole idea between “six degrees of difference,” “hubs,” and “strong versus weak connections” is what holds a network together.

We all have close friends. Dunbar’s Number suggests we have at most about 15 “close” connections. These are family and dear friends who we have deep personal connections with. Mostly, they are like us. Then, we also have “distant” or “weak” associations. These are people we know less well: casual connections at work, school, sports, church, etc.

We usually have more weak connections than strong connections (although there may be some introvert vs. extrovert tendencies here). Some people have more of these strong, and especially more of these weak, associations than others. In network theory, these are the “hubs” that hold a large swarm together.

People with a lot of weak connections to people they know only casually can reach “different parts” of a vast swarm. These weak connections go to people who are generally not like us. They share a few things in common with us, but more things in common with others. They move in worlds we don’t move in. And because of that, you are more likely to encounter new information–about jobs, about politics, about science, about faith, etc.–from people who are less like you: because the people who are more like you mostly know what you know, and mostly encounter the same information you do on a daily basis.

So what this chart is telling us is that people on Facebook are mostly connected to people they know well – people close to them, people who are more like them. People on Twitter are more connected to distant people – people who are less like them. It makes sense, because Facebook algorithmically is intended to bring you people that you know, people whose daily lives you want to follow, whereas Twitter is all about “real time” life in our nation or state or around the world, and people that you “might want to follow.”

It is reinforced by what we share on the two platforms. On Facebook, we mostly share things that are interesting to people who know us well; on Twitter, we share things that would be interesting to people who are more distant from us – less personal, more professional, more issues, more thinking, more news, more current events.

The one area where this might be a little different is in the current election – but that’s of interest to most people in the country, and what we share on FB is mostly signaling our current position on the election to those closer to us.

The implications for mission? Facebook will probably be more useful for sharing your mission and vision with those most like you – maybe friends, maybe supporters, maybe fellow church members, etc. Twitter might be more useful for finding out information that would be beneficial to your mission and vision.

My only Twitter timeline is mostly religious leaders, journalists, foreign policy writers, technologists, scientists, NGOs, observers, etc. It brings me news from around the world in the blink of an eye. I rarely find the same type of information on Facebook. It’s worth keeping in mind that there are many different kinds of social media, and think about how those kinds represent pools of information that can help your purpose.  

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